Repairing the Planet: Teens unite to make fully-accessible playground a reality in Meridian

Jake Davidson, Jeannie Null and William Lamar

The Hebrew term “tikkun olam,” which is used to describe social action in Judaism, can be translated as “repairing the planet.”

With the inspiration and activism of 14-year-old Jeannie Null, Meridian teens and “close friends” William Lamar and Jake Davidson — Baptist and Jewish respectively — undertook a fundraising campaign to renovate and transform the closed Planet Playground into a place that would be accessible to all, including Jeannie, who is in a wheelchair.

Last fall, the teens raised over $150,000 toward the project, which had a $320,000 goal for phase one. But their efforts had the effect of over $400,000 in fulfilling the local component of matching grants, in addition to city and county funding, allowing the project to go forward.

In late April, the major Tikkun Olam project has almost been completed, with the opening of Jeannie’s Place at Planet Playground. Project coordinator Julia Norman said there were still a few minor items and landscaping to be done, along with one remaining piece of equipment that is on the way, but the weekend of April 20, the playground was starting to be used again.

The entire project began with a school fundraiser that had an unfortunate ending. The fundraiser at Jeannie’s elementary school included a pizza party and a ride in a Hummer for students who sold a certain amount. At the last minute, the reward was switched to a Hummer ride to Planet Playground, which meant Jeannie, then 10 years old, could not participate.

Her mother, Julie, started a movement for an all-inclusive playground, and Jeannie quickly became a vocal advocate and the face of the effort, culminating in the establishment of Jeannie’s Place at Planet Playground and her being named the youngest-ever Citizen of the Year by the Meridian Star.

Before she was born, Jeannie had a stroke in-utero. The Nulls knew there was something wrong when she did not develop the same way as her older brother, Jonah. The stroke was diagnosed at the age of 18 months.

When she turned four, she started having seizures, starting an odyssey of medical appointments. When she was 6, she started a series of brain surgeries in Birmingham to deal with her epilepsy. After the first surgery was unsuccessful, the second removed the part of her brain causing the seizures. Though the right side of her body was paralyzed as a result, she likely would not have survived otherwise.

Six weeks later, a staph infection developed in her skull, almost killing her. After recovering from that, another surgery removed two-thirds of her skull. After a very cautious six months, she had her fifth surgery to install a prosthetic skull with titanium screws.

Seizure-free, Jeannie started to excel and is now finishing the ninth grade. William commented that Jeannie is “always just so upbeat and happy.”

After the school fundraiser incident, Julie started researching inclusive playgrounds, and found there was one in Richland. After getting advice from organizers there on how to proceed, she started working to get Meridian officials on board, with City Councilman George Thomas taking the lead.

Planet Playground had fallen into disrepair and had been closed, so the idea began to redo Planet Playground but make it ADA-compliant.

In 2017, Play By Design unveiled plans for the playground, but then came the issue of funding.

Progress was slow, but in 2018 things started picking up. “That’s when Jake and William stepped in and started doing their fundraising,” Norman said.

Though both play football, the bulk of their fundraising took place during the fall as they solicited local businesses and individuals, despite having no previous fundraising experience.

William had originally decided to build park benches for his Eagle Scout project. But he saw the condition of Planet Playground and decided to think bigger.

Jason Null, Jeannie’s father, had coached William in baseball, so the pieces started falling into place.

Meanwhile, last May Jake had volunteered for Camp Dream Street at the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica. Founded in 1975, the camp is a five-day chance for children with disabilities to have a summer camp experience and just be children. Much of the staff are volunteers from the region’s National Federation of Temple Youth chapters.

Inspired by his time staffing Dream Street, he joined William’s effort as they both recalled the fun times they had at Planet Playground while growing up.

By further coincidence, Jason Null works for Southern Pipe, which is Jake’s family’s business.

Organizers had been cutting elements from the playground design from a lack of funds, but the teens kept raising funds to keep those items. Now, Norman said, “we believe it is the largest inclusive playground in the state,” and possibly neighboring states.

The playground “is for everybody,” Norman said, and is designed so children of all abilities can play together. It is designed not just for wheelchairs, but for those with sensory disorders and other conditions.

A key component that Jeannie wanted was a merry-go-round that could accommodate her wheelchair, one that loads at ground level. There is also a “liberty swing” that the entire wheelchair fits on, the first of its kind in Mississippi and only the 16th in the country. In the play fort, ramps are wide enough for two children in wheelchairs to pass each other going opposite directions.

The play surface is a composite that is soft yet sturdy enough for those with wheelchairs or walkers. There will also be a “parachute shade” to keep the equipment from getting too hot in the summer.

In February, work began on the playground, with over 2,000 volunteers braving a very rainy season to work on the project. Local restaurants pitched in on volunteer days, and some churches had early services at the park on Sunday mornings before build days.

Marveling at the number of volunteers, Jason Null said “we’ve got a great community around here.”

An official dedication has not been set as of press time, as they are waiting for the arrival of one last major element — a slide that does not generate static, so children with cochlear implants can use it.

Only a few places around the world make those slides, and this one has been delayed in shipment from Germany.

Jason Null said he can’t explain how excited his family is, and for the ability of all children “to play together.”

After the playground is finished, they hope to have regular fundraising events for maintenance and upkeep, because “we’re in Mississippi” and the weather will require it.

The goal was to have the playground ready so that five years after being shut out of a school activity, Jeannie could have her 15th birthday party at Jeannie’s Place at Planet Playground.

Jason Null said without the efforts of William and Jake, he doesn’t think the project “would have happened any time soon.”

William will head off to Mississippi State this fall, while Jake will attend the University of Georgia.